When Congress passed MAP-21 last summer, the legislation offered a much-needed commitment to transportation infrastructure funding for the next two years. But it also left us with obstacles, among them a lack of progress on long-term funding solutions. Fortunately, there may be opportunities to address this issue now as Congress and the nation debate how to allocate constrained federal resources and determine how to use them to leverage state and local funds and attract private investment.
We have all made and heard the arguments about declining infrastructure investment particularly in our metropolitan communities where there is both population growth and increased mobility demand. Elected leaders and transportation professionals express chagrin and are often puzzled by the seeming lack of broad public appreciation for our acceptance of these arguments, especially, when we can cite specific needs and their value to our businesses and communities.
Why isn’t our message getting through? It may be because our understanding of the economic threats that communities and families face are very different in timelines and size than those of our institutions. It may also be that the way we explain our plans and investments doesn’t translate easily into a picture the individual voter or family can adopt and support.
But people will understand and respond when a situation is impacting them immediately. For example, the effects of Super Storm Sandy have generated a substantial response in New York and New Jersey communities.
But we probably need to recognize and accept as reality, at least for the next five years, that available federal funding is likely to decline. Federal dollars on average now represent 20 to 25 percent of the total dollars spent on U.S. transportation investment. Although this is still a significant amount and the federal government retains substantial policy influence through programmatic and regulatory “strings,” the rise of state and local influence is significant.
What does this potential shift in the balance of funding power mean? Well, it may mean the federal role will be to lay out a national statement of interest and use its resources to achieve federal goals by providing the types of funding that encourage a focus on achieving efficiencies, assure systemic support, rely on performance metrics and maximally leverage other public and private funding. At the state and local level, it’s likely to prompt more of the self funding efforts witnessed in the last election. Certainly it should mean the development of a federal strategic freight plan which includes a process for addressing multistate corridors, strategies to improve freight/intermodal connectivity and state freight plans based on performance criteria tied to well-specified commercial economic goals.
How will this happen? Perhaps, we need to keep our focus simple. We need to live in the future. We need to have a vision of that future, understand what’s needed and work collaboratively to make transformational change achievable. It will clearly require champions who are willing to act as “change agents.”